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Will Trump make architecture great again? The dark history of dictator chic | Art and design


Alarm bells rang and hearts sank in the design world with news of a proposed executive order from Donald Trump stipulating that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for all future federal buildings in the US.

The draft order, dispiritingly titled Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again, argues that neoclassicism symbolises the founding fathers’ “self-governing ideals”, whereas contemporary styles such as brutalism and deconstructivism are incapable of embodying America’s “national values”. Those values can now only be expressed by imitating a 19th-century interpretation of what people were doing in Rome and Athens millennia ago. For a property tycoon whose own architectural tastes lean towards International Style skyscrapers with lots of shiny trimmings, Trump could be seen as throwing stones from a mirror-glassed house here, but his penchant for neoclassicism also brings to mind more retrograde, even sinister associations. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europe’s classical revival sought to reconnect to an idealised past, alluding to values of order, rationality and morality. These proved to be illusory, given the bloody warfare that was to come. Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer, also appropriated the tradition and grandeur of neoclassicism to serve the Nazi project, just as Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy used it to recall the might of imperial Rome.

But it is not that simple. For one thing, everyone was doing neoclassical architecture back then. The world’s capitals are dripping with it (look at London’s National Gallery, Paris’s Panthéon or Washington DC’s Capitol building, for example. Meanwhile, fascism and Nazism equally embraced modernism – as with Giuseppe Terragni’s influential Casa del Fascio, from 1936. Populist world leaders have had decidedly mixed tastes, or deficiencies thereof. Trump’s commercial properties are closer to the garishly glitzy style known as “dictator chic”. Totalitarian states such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan boast monumental buildings by the likes of Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. Progressive Danish architect Bjarke Ingels was recently criticised for meeting with Brazil’s authoritarian president, Jair Bolsonaro.

We should not be drawn in by this attempt to politicise architecture. Just because the Trump administration has plumped for neoclassical, it does not mean his opponents need to disown it or pick an opposite side. Attempts to reduce the rich, complex history of architecture down to crass polarities should be resisted. If anything, the split in this scenario is between those who trust architects and professionals to design whatever they think is best, and those who seek to control what they do. The former is how the US currently operates. In 1962, the Kennedy administration drew up its enlightened Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which warned against any official government style, stating “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa”.

Trump’s new proposal seeks to reverse that flow. The former is how a free society does architecture, the latter is literally dictatorship.

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